A Voice in the Wilderness In Defense of "Mere Conservatism"

11Oct/09Off

Mere Conservatism: The Beginning

by: R.J. Moeller

0060652926.01.LZZZZZZZEver since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbors was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.
-CS Lewis, Preface to Mere Christianity

There is what seems to be a contradiction of sorts in the human condition: we are at the same time unique, separate beings, and yet also unmistakably interrelated, communal creatures. We verbalize our desire to be distinctive from one another, yet spend so much of our time assembling groups to belong to.

Rather than needlessly spending the time here to quibble over which of these various descriptions of humanity best (or ought to) describes it, I believe we would benefit most from accepting these paradoxes as the realities they are and moving forward in our important investigations and discussions on everything from sociology to economics to politics with them in mind.

We have the capacity to retain our individuality while at the same time belonging to groups of like-minded people who come together for common purposes. Any relationship, whether with a spouse or a political party, involves compromise. It isn’t a question of “if” you will have to at times cede a portion of your individual preferences, but “how much” and "for what purpose."

The fundamental reason we argue over the cultural, political and economic issues of our time is because we all have ideas about the way things should be. Everyone believes in something. Everyone has a value-system that impacts how they look at the world. No one is a true relativist, for even the person who touts that "all truths are equal" has made a distinct truth-claim.

Knowledge and fact-collecting are obviously critical to our development as thinking, rational, functioning members of a free society, but even the most academic of books has been written by a human being susceptible to the same prejudices and biases we all are. This in no way discredits the vital importance of knowledge. On the contrary, it should be the motivating factor in collecting as many facts, opinions, and perspectives as possible.

It also points to the legitimate role our personal convictions and life experiences can play in the conclusions we come to.

The actual votes we cast at the ballot box are only the last, or most recent, steps in a life-long moral, intellectual, and often spiritual journey that ought to have began years earlier. The right itself to cast a vote does not exist in a vacuum, and carries with it certain implications regarding the duty we all have to ensure future generations have access to that same right.

So starting from the premises that: 1) there are forces at work in the human condition that both push us away in search of individualism and pull us back into the comforting arms of whichever communities we seek to belong to, and 2) each of us have a vested interest in how our society, government, and economy works and that interest is impacted by more than just statistics on a spreadsheet, I wish to venture the thesis that the most effective way to improve our nation and our national debate today is to better clarify and more clearly define what it is we believe as individuals and groups of individuals.

One of the most important influences on my life has been the writing and thinking of syndicated columnist and radio talk show host Dennis Prager. One of Mr. Prager’s most insightful axioms that he often reiterates when debating someone who disagrees with his perspective on any given issue is as follows: “I prefer clarity to unity.” By that Prager is in no way saying that he does not desire for people to get along with one another or seek the general welfare. But what he has correctly identified is this: that Americans are under the false impression that everyone has to get along at all costs; that the end goal of a free society such as ours is universality of thought; that how someone says something is always more important than what he or she actually says.

This, of course, is rubbish.

How can I be unified with my neighbor if I am continually forced to pretend that I agree with his lifestyle if his lifestyle includes, say, illegally selling drugs? How is the national discourse improved if dissent is disallowed (or even just discouraged) in the name of national “unity”? Who could label a church or synagogue “healthy” if her parishioners or members don’t in any way adhere to the basic doctrines preached on Sunday morning from the pulpit, and come each week because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside?

How can a nation hope to be unified in even the vaguest way imaginable if we do not agree on any of the same core values?

Clarity implies that all parties involved have been brought up to speed as to what is even being discussed or debated. Clarity is necessary before any other worthwhile step can be taken as a group. Clarity is not a guarantor of real unity, the kind exhibited by neighbors of various religious and moral convictions living side-by-side in peace, but it is a prerequisite.

What each of us can offer, what I intend to contribute in the coming weeks and months (and hopefully, years) with my essays under the title “Mere Conservatism”, is an explanation and defense of the things we believe in and what led us to believe in them.

For those who consider themselves a Conservative, Republican, Libertarian or anything else Right-of-Center, my intent is to clarify the positions and underlying assumptions of conservatism that bind us, however loosely. There is a two-fold purpose in this. First, I seek to further illuminate these conservative positions because while many of us learn liberalism from liberals, I fear that far too many of us have learned what conservatism is from liberals as well. Perhaps there are some Americans out there who might well be conservative in their actual beliefs, but have for superfluous and superficial reasons opposed these positions on the issues that more closely align with their values.

My second purpose is anchored in the hope that out of an open, honest, and thoughtful dissemination of what I believe the core, basic tenets of conservatism to be, a stronger coalition of like-minded voters and citizen-activists will emerge. The in-fighting that goes on among Center-Right Americans, especially between libertarians and religious conservatives, is beneficial to the extent it challenges us to remember the importance of each other’s positions, but is devastating to the effectiveness we potentially could have should we also spend some time focusing on what unites us in thought, word, and deed.

A quick example: Religious conservatives and libertarians share a common disdain for centralized power in the hands of mere mortals.  This is a huge point of agreement.  None of us want anarchy, and none of us want progressive, collectivist liberalism (the kind our current president bathes in).  Certainly we disagree about the precise role a federal government ought to play in the lives of its citizenry, but a commitment to the Constitution and an opposition to the top-down socialism that liberal Democrats envision are two significant areas of common ground.  We can stand by our personal values while working together to avoid the fate that befalls all nations that make social engineering and the Utopian promise of "guaranteed" and "equal" outcomes to their people higher priorities than liberty, property rights, and personal responsibility.

Now, for those reading this who would describe themselves as Liberal, Democrat, Progressive or anything else Left-of-Center, please understand that another seeming contradiction of the human condition is the capability we all have to dislike another person’s beliefs without having to dislike the person. I am conservative through-and-through, but recognize and respect differing perspectives on every issue from abortion to gay marriage to taxation and welfare. The service I hope to provide for my liberal readers is a thoughtful discourse and disclosure of what the “opposing side” believes, and how we came to believe what we do. Stick with me as I post these columns, and I urge you to engage and challenge my conclusions.  Perhaps if nothing else my treatment of these ideas, ideals, and values will encourage you to re-assess why you believe what you do.

Today I simply want to lay the groundwork for what will be coming this fall and winter from A Voice in the Wilderness. To attempt to define and clarify any ideology or value system will understandably be met with some measure of cynicism and doubt. I completely understand this, and humbly acknowledge the limitations of my own intellectual competency. I am just a young man in his 20’s who cares about his country, culture, and community. I feel convicted to define and defend the things I believe, especially when I see so much gross misrepresentation of my conservative values occurring in the public square.

I am not an expert in economics. I do not hold a degree in history. I am by no means a learned theologian. And yet it is primarily because of these three specific areas of knowledge and experience that I am most comfortable with the label of “conservative.”

It is my opinion that a basic, “mere” understanding of economics, history, and theology is necessary for anyone who desires a coherent worldview, one capable of responding to the cultural and political issues that stare us right in the face every day of the week, every week of the year. What follows will be a conservative’s understanding of those three areas of knowledge and experience.The-Great-Hall,-Winter-Palace,-St.-Petersburg,-1837

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis’ masterful explanation of the “belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times,” Lewis describes his goal in attempting to clarify and define such a massive and complicated subject matter as Christianity. He compares the state of mind and belief he hopes to help his reader arrive at to a “great hall, out of which doors open into several rooms…

If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in…It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference…When you get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it is waiting, not as camping.”

He continues:

“Above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’”

I hope as the coming weeks and months unfold that you will join me on this intellectual journey.  I hope that the words I write, the exchanges we have, will be soaked with the same spirit of honest discourse, meaningful debate, and truth-seeking clarity that Lewis describes.

“When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall.”

Comments (26) Trackbacks (6)
  1. I can honestly say this is your best idea yet RJ. I cannot wait to read more. Well done.

  2. Very impressive undertaking. It is so frustrating to talk to liberals who don’t know why they think the way they do, who have put no thought into their worldview. But like you correctly identified in your article, the REAL problem is that conservatives can be the same way. If we don’t know our stuff, how can we make a coherent case for our ideas? Keep up the good work, young man.

  3. Wow. Just read your blog for the first time and am signing up. I am a conservative, but need to learn the things you talk about. Happy to hear that you share my admiration for Dennis Prager:
    “One of the most important influences on my life has been the writing and thinking of syndicated columnist and radio talk show host Dennis Prager.”

  4. I base my conservative beliefs on scripture and Dennis has many great insites and I feel he is a spiritual man and believes how GOD sees things.It is not hard to know if people read the Bible like a book and not cherry pick it you have to rightly divide the word.Who,What,Where,When and Why.Can’t get that from on or two verses.Thanks Dennis enjoy your show I’m not on the same level of intellect but I understand and agree with alot of what you say.GOD BLESS YOU.

  5. “while many of us learn liberalism from liberals, I fear that far too many of us have learned what conservatism is from liberals as well.”

    Indeed. Looking forward to joining you in the coming weeks. You’ve made me want to dust off my copy of Mere Christianity & take another pass at it. Thank you.

  6. This has truly sparked my interest, and my hope of learning. I’m looking forward to future columns.

  7. Excellent, Robbie! I have some teenagers I will bring to the audience. Keep up the strong Voice in the Wilderness – we are listening and discussing.

  8. Excellent, Robbie! I have some teenagers I will bring to the audience. Keep up the strong Voice in the Wilderness – we are reading and discussing.

  9. RJ, I am with you completely.
    I am excited for the weeks (years) to come.

  10. This is a dialogue more than overdue. I would love to see your pieces read by great masses of people because that would mean, at least at some level, they are ready to think hard about important things. God bless! I am looking forward to joining you on your journey!

    pnppilgirm

  11. I like the idea here, RJ. You obviously have thought this one through extensively, so I’m guessing we’ll see some dynamite articles coming our way. I appreciate that you took a paragraph to speak to liberals (or whoever may not share the bulk of your ideology). My hope for this country is not that everyone becomes a Republican, but that we shift the debate back to the type of dialogue a Republican and Democrat could have had in, say, JFK’s time. These aren’t your parents Democrats these days…at least not the leadership.

  12. Well said Mr. Moeller. I look forward to continuing to read your undertakings and hope you don’t mind when I link from my blog to yours for pertinent discussion…

  13. What a breath of fresh air!

    I am so sick of the shouting and shrill voices all around.

    Please proceed.

  14. Can’t wait for the next entry

  15. Thanks for so many kind words and interesting comments. I promise you the columns and essays that I have in store for the Mere Conservatism series will be worth your time. If you have kids, nieces, nephews, neighbors, grandkids, etc. that are between the ages of 15-30, make sure you pass them along. God bless.

  16. New Anger in the blogsphere, has got to be far worse now than ever before. Anger is on the war path all over the blogsphere
    There is so much anger, profanity and just plain uncivil behavior in the “Left and liberal blogs” that it’s getting to be a real problem.
    It seems like the” Left and liberal blogs” are now off limits to anyone with an opposing view. Is this an offshoot of the Obama administration‘s way of leading the country? I would say yes, it is.
    The Left who was always angry at everything for the past 8 years, angry at President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the administration, the war in Iraq, the ‘right-wing media,’ and more. Are now angry at everyone that has anything contrary to say about the Obama administration. It was just fine to Hate Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, and even the Bush daughters. But don’t you dare to say an bad word about Michelle or Barack Omama or they will chastise you, call you all kinds of names and even insult your way/style of writing or typing.

    Upon web-surfing yesterday I followed a link that led me to a Ultra-Liberal blog where the topic was the Gallup poll of Obama’s favorability. I thought nothing about posting my opinion and my position on this blog …….EXCEPT not realizing who I was dealing with, the author of the blog attacked me like a Pitbull dog… Calling me all kinds of names and insults and even insulting my use of words. (My grammar) she went to my blog and blasted me on her blog about almost everything I had written on mine. I foolishly always thought that I was free to write anything that I wanted on my own blog. I never thought that what I wrote had to meet the approval of another blogger.
    Well within a few minutes, (not more that 3-5) my blog was invaded with sicko’s from her blog using all kinds of stupid and Anonymous screen names all attacking me to the extent that i was forced to close the comments.

    I can’t think of one thing that I have wrote on this site that I would ever be ashamed of. Of course some of the sarcasm is probably over the head of many on the left and would need to be explained in painful detail. And even then their fragile minds still wouldn’t be able to grasp it.

    Words are just words. You make of them what you want. I’ve never banned anyone from this site for swearing except when they make entire nonsensical statements of nothing by “bad” words because they are not literate enough to actually form an argument. And I never will.
    Criticism of the administration is the American way. I never deleted, criticized, or banned anyone that posted those disgusting pictures of George Bush and company. The blogger that I am talking about now had and still does post every negative thing she can get her hands on about George Bush. But don’t dare and do the same about her precious Barack or Michelle.
    I stand by my original argument posted on her blog and I have nothing to be ashamed of.
    And I thank everyone that has come to my support both over here and over there.

  17. Thanks for coming by & the comment. Just so you know, I posted a link to this site in my latest post – I hope it brings you some traffic. Thanks once again!

  18. Very interesting and provocative, sheer genius in my most humble opinion. As one is is the ONLY conservative element in my family, as one who learned about
    conservatism from only liberals and the far left, I have had to educate myself and along the way have become increasingly tilted to the right. I am looking forward to more from you, Robby!

    Just My2 cents has made some interesting observations about the ultra far left and how it is almost sacreligious to post ANYTHING negative about Obama or the
    left. It is almost impossible to have a rational discussion with these people as I have tried time and again, but it always ends up with name calling and accusing me of being racist, an Islamophobe(that is true and I will NEVER deny that), anti American. capitalist war monerging pig among other pleasant names that I have been called. We have friends who are ultra liberals and even when they know they are wrong, the FACTS are against them and their arguments, they still refuse to acknowledge my point of view, backed by facts and history. The conversations always go downhill from this point on. I always try to listen to the other side. The opinions and positions they are taking, trying to defend, and all I ask is that I, we get equal consideration. Depending on which site I have posted comments on, the attacks on me have been extremely vitriollic(sp) and downright vicious. Every word is taken personally but I refuse to alter my comments or beliefs to please anyone, period.

    Just My 2 Cents: I stand with you and how you feel. There was only ONE time I regretted what I had posted and that served me well as a lesson to learn from.
    It was a very long time ago and I was eventually banned from that site not once but three times. My regrets and apology were never published on the site. The owner of that site knew if that was done, my continued villification and trashing by his readers would have no standing or merit. True discussion and discourse are hard to find rhese days and that is why I appreciate RJ and VIW so much. I will be dropping by your blog in the very near future.

  19. Looks like the people have spoken and they (like me) like what they see, RJ.

    You’ve set yourself up here for something potentially big, so don’t blow it. ;)

    But seriously, thanks for defending what you and so many of us believe. We stand with you. I look forward to the columns you will print and to the hopefully engaging dialogue that can be opened (yes, even with liberal or just disagreeing readers).

  20. Well put and an excellent read.

  21. I will follow your thesis with great interest. It has merit and may indeed present more opportunities for open discussion and understanding in this land of the free and home of the brave.

    Happy Dae·
    http://ShoeStringGenealogy.com

  22. That may be your conclusion. It is not mine. Prager prefers everyone agree with HIS philosophy.

    “How can I be unified with my neighbor if I am continually forced to pretend that I agree with his lifestyle”

    Why in the world would you feel obligated to pretend that you agree with your neighbor’s lifestyle? YOU don’t need to keep anyone for a friend or accept their lifestyle if you don’t choose to. Have you no backbone Moeller? YOU make choices and YOU allow your acquaintances to make theirs. YOU either make allowances for the differences or choose new acquaintances. You then follow up by saying: Any relationship, whether with a spouse or a political party, involves compromise. It isn’t a question of “if” you will have to at times cede a portion of your individual preferences, but “how much”. Aren’t you contradicting your earlier statement? Of course we all compromise, and for various reasons. Doing so is OUR choice.

    The fundamental reason we argue over the socio-political issues of our time is because we all have ideas about the way things should be. Everyone believes in something. Everyone has a value-system that impacts how they look at the world. No one is a true relativist, for even the person who touts that all truth is equal has made a distinct truth-claim. This is true whenever people assemble. Not everyone can have his or her way. COMPROMISE, and/or Majority Rule must come into play.

    “The actual votes we cast at the ballot box are only the last, or most recent, steps of a moral, intellectual, and often spiritual journey that began years earlier. The right itself to cast a vote does not exist in a vacuum, and carries with it certain implications regarding the duty we all have to ensure future generations have access to that same right.”

    You really believe this? My take is that there is a small percentage of the population that votes with any intelligence–that votes for the person, not the party. Among my acquaintances, even my family members, I find that males are more apt to carry on the political preference of their fathers. Women are more apt to vote as their husbands tell them to (although this anomaly is diminishing, thank goodness). And let’s not forget the questionable election results of the previous two elections.

    “My second purpose is the hope that out of an open, honest, and thoughtful dissemination of what I believe the core, basic tenets of conservatism to be, a stronger coalition of like-minded voters and citizen-activists will emerge.”

    Yep, there you go wanting to insinuate “what [you] believe the core, basic tenets of conservatism to be” as the guideline. Why are your tenets better than any others?

    “The service I hope to provide for my liberal readers is a thoughtful discourse and disclosure of what the “opposing side” believes, and how we came to believe what we do. Stick with me as I post these columns, and I urge you to engage and challenge my conclusions. Perhaps if nothing else my treatment of these ideas, ideals, and values will encourage you to re-assess why you believe what you do.”

    Uh, thanks, but no thanks. If these flighty arguments are supposed to persuade me to become a conservative, you have failed. They only make me appreciate being an Independent all the more. And don’t you dare say your appreciation of America is any greater than mine is! You are twenty years old? Maturity is yet to come.

  23. “Yep, there you go wanting to insinuate “what [you] believe the core, basic tenets of conservatism to be” as the guideline. Why are your tenets better than any others?”

    The reason conservatives believe their opinions are better than liberals, is because conservatism is how the greatest country in the world got started, and liberalism is how socialism got started. If you don’t think your opinion is better than one that opposes yours, why have an opinion at all?

    Conservatives say, “some opinions are better (or much better) than other opinions, so we have to seek the policies that have worked best in the past. I do not deny your right to have an opinion and I won’t deny my right to say it’s bad.” Liberals say, “all opinions are equally good, unless they are contradict with mine, in which case they are worse.” The irony is, in the end, we are saying the same thing.

  24. Barbara-

    Thanks for your comments. I’m gonna try and respond to some of them in order.

    Everyone prefers that other people agree with their life-philosophy. Prager is not unique in this. The difference is that Dennis spends three hours a day, five days a week, openly espousing that philosophy and engaging those who disagree.

    You attacked my statements about how it is ridiculous to pretend to be ok with things or people you disagree with if you really don’t. You are missing the point I fear. I am not saying that I feel intense pressure to condone other people and their behavior. I AM saying that there is a pervasive attempt in this country to get people to stop “bickering” and to just accept not only every person, but everything other people do or say or believe. This is ridiculous. It is the pro-multiculturalism, relativism of (predominantly) the secular Left. The big joke is of course that they themselves want you to believe their ideology. So I am saying we need to stop pretending we disagree and start actively debating and discussing what we specifically disagree on and how we can better co-exist with one another. Unity is not possible, but humanity and civility are.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your critique of my thoughts on compromise. A balance must be struck between compromise and defending the things you care most about. For example, I believe in keeping the government out of our lives as much as possible, but I also favor policemen and much of the Patriot Act. That doesn’t make me unreasonable or hypocritical.

    As far as the process that goes in to voting, it is different for every person. You seem to be an informed participant in the political process, and that is wonderful to hear. I am in my mid-20′s and have been eligible to vote for three elections now. I find that even when I was 18 and not sure about politics and economics and all that goes in to casting a vote that there were forces in my life exerting influences on me. My faith, my family, my admittedly limited life experiences, etc. all played a part in my support of George W. Bush over Al Gore that year. Certainly there are dumb people in the country, and people who dont vote, and people who vote straight party line without thinking, and a million other variables. But even the person who votes “blindly” is still being influenced by other forces besides pure politics on how to vote. Plus, the point of what I am trying to do is get people (especially those near my own age) to see that we have a duty to vote and be informed and to utilize all these other forces (religion, morality, history, economics, etc) in making the final decision in that process: a vote at the ballot box. I’m not sure why this is a bad thing. Would it be better to say “You’re all idiots out there and suckers for partisan hacks so our country is doomed and its all your fault”? I have hope for my generation.

    Next you went after my intent to build a stronger coalition of like-minded voters and citizen-activists….These things I will be writing about in the coming weeks and months are not “RJ’s truth”, they are the ideas, ideals, and values that I have come to find are, in my opinion, the best around. I believe in them. I look to wiser men and women in my life and in my studies and throughout history and collect the things I agree with and think are true, good, and beautiful. Take what I say, or leave it, but I will not feel personally attacked because the truth I believe I’ve found is not my own. Perhaps you are mad at the ideas, and that is fine. Share your own. Start a blog. Write a book. I’ll read it and gladly engage you on where I think you are wrong. I think more Americans share common values than we are led to believe. I think most of those values could fall under what is today known as “conservatism”, but they can also bleed over into libertarianism or the value-systems of independents and moderates.

    My intent is not to convert you to Republican or even conservative…it is describe what I believe is the basic framework of a conservative worldview, and ultimately, to discover and discuss and debate real, hard and objective truths and insights about our world. That’s all.

    Stick with me and keep responding with your thoughts. Don’t dismiss me because you have negative experiences with other conservatives or Republicans or whoever. Thanks and God bless.

  25. An impressive effort, RJ! You give me hope for the next generation, just as all of our young volunteers in the military do. I’m glad that the cynicism and “whatever floats your boat” philosophy of so many baby boomers hasn’t been carried over to all of your generation! I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  26. And oh by the way, Barbara, I find young RJ to be FAR more mature and logical in his arguments than you – and I expect I am much closer to your generation than I am to his. If you think his arguments are “flighty”, it would seem to be a good time for you to reacquaint yourself with a dictionary. I believe Webster’s is a good example. I also believe that if you think most women today “vote as their husbands tell them to”, your experience of society is sadly limited.

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What is “Mere Conservatism”?

The basic ideas, ideals, and values that generally define and characterize the central tenets of what today might be termed "modern conservative thought."

We believe that a proper understanding of history, economics, and theology leads to certain conclusions. Many of these are the same conclusions our Founding Fathers arrived at in constructing a "more perfect union."

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